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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Boring Banking Industry?

Two of the leading voices in finance Frances Coppola and Yves Smith are in a disagreement - sort of a pseudo-disagreement if you ask me - over whether banking should be boring or not. The question itself is the reason for the confusion. Banking should be boring was endorsed by Elizabeth Warren too.

I think Banking should be my kind of boring. By boring I mean two things - it should not be unnecessarily complex, and it should be capable to meet the complexity inherent in banking. Retail banking is not boring - for wrong reasons. It confounds the public with products that are too complex for their needs. At the same time, the back end that supports these products (read - corresponding asset liability matching mechanism, hedging etc.) is not as sophisticated. Investment banking on the other hand is too boring - meaning it does the complex shit right but it passes that shit to people who have no clue without retaining any skin in the game. 

Banking has multiple facets:
First there is a probability management that allows banks to take deposits for different terms and make loans for different terms and manage the asset-liability gap. This is similar to the insurance industry managing premiums and payouts. A smaller part of this is managing float which is a skill by itself. This is more like extremely short term trading.

The second aspect of banking is your ability to make loans that will pay a decent return without going bust. It is often known as the essence of banking. Borrowers whetting, background checks, credit history check etc. forms part of this aspect of banking.

Third aspect of banking is about sales of a variety of investment products. Here the retail staff of the bank tries to meet its sales targets by selling complex investment products to unsuspecting customers. The customers, most often, are meeting these sales-people to get some transaction done - they are not there to seek investment products.

Fourth aspect is support services which can be totally outsourced. This aspect covers your cheque-book issuances, mailing the account statements, keeping the personal records up to date. Issuing certificates for taxes, etc. On the asset side - it deals with record keeping, and procedural stuff. It is fairly automated and most customers can be empowered to do it themselves as well.

Understanding banking:
We cannot classify banking into retail and investment banking and expect to gain any new understand. We need to cut banking up into two chunks - transaction management and investment management.

Transaction management should be boring - like telephone exchanges or something. It should simply be WYSIWYG. It is also similar to McDonalds - it is basic and simple but you need to have skills to pull of the quick delivery at low cost. Meaning it is more a function of skill (can be acquired by repetition) than expertise (research, experience and insight are essential)

On the flip side, the investment management side should be complex. Now loans are debt investments and so is float. Selling investment products is as different from transaction management as chalk and cheese. You need experts to sell those products and ensure that they are not mis-sold. This part has been wrongly simplified. This part requires expertise.

What is boring?
Currently what is boring is selling investment products - which shouldn't be. Most people I know - yes most - do not understand the risks with any of the investment products they buy. It can be insurance policies, term deposits, mutual funds, debt funds, real estate or whatever.

Now basic risk management tells us that just because you buy different products does not mitigate your risks - sometimes your risks may go up. This risk compounding is not even understood by the practitioners let alone the customers. The sellers of these products, to use a popular phrase, get a salary to not understand them.

Now credit cards and over-drafts are not simple transaction management products. They are in fact loan products and deserve to be sold professionally. Most of the unnecessary complexity lies here. People who go for credit cards do not understand the terms of loan they are entering - and Warren has highlighted it time and again. Same goes with OD - while it is not as bad as credit card terms - hereto people do not understand what they are getting into.

There is quite a bit of complexity in term deposit side as well. If we really examine, most of the depositors do not make as much from their deposits as they should. The optimisation is never explained and never understood. It is in the interest of banks that depositors do not understand this - CASA (current account - savings account) helps keep the cost of capital low.

These cannot be boring - quite the opposite. These issues need to be explained - some by the banks selling these products, others by general education.

What is not boring?
Conversely, the transaction management is unnecessarily complicated. Real time settlement should have been a norm now - yet banks do enjoy settlement floats on many payment mechanisms. These represent the money the banks use after the debit the account and before they credit the account of the beneficiary.

One source of complications in transaction is authentication and identification. These cannot be eliminated as they exist to keep your bank account safe. However, all other sources of complexity are available for simplification.

Transaction fees are pretty complex, sometimes they are waived other times you get charged for using some facility during a holiday or something like that.

In sum
Banking is simple and complex at the same time - just not in the right places. It is time to rewire banking - simplify it just as much as required and no more.

Buy my books "Subverting Capitalism & Democracy" and "Understanding Firms".